Only a few moments ago,I received the official word from my friend Henrique that Denise Matthews,better known as Vanity passed away today. It was very likely to do with the kidney dialysis she lived with for years that derived from her drug use during the 80’s. It isn’t always the best move to talk about someone the moment they pass away. But Vanity is someone I’ve been wanting to talk about for some time. In a similar fashion to the also late Rick James, there was a time when I used to get the singer confused with the song with Vanity. Her romantic complexities with Prince,her troubled life and her cooing vocals often got in the way of the excellent Minneapolis grooves that she was involved with.
I first heard the Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl” through the soundtrack for the Spike Lee Joint Girl 6 in in the late 90’s. It was right around the time I was heavily studying Princ and the Minneapolis sound’s history. While crate digging one day,I located a Vanity solo album from 1984 entitled Wild Animal. It was her first solo album,and was released on Motown. The album itself had the new wave/dance friendly grooves of Minneapolis. But there was a good dose of funk on it too. One track however caught my ears at the time. And it’s wonderful to have some further understanding of it today. And apparently the song was a decent hit too. It was called “Mechanical Emotion”.
A brittle,heavily percussive drum machine rhythm opens the song and keeps up without a break throughout the song. The melodic content of the song consists of several layers of heavily orchestrated synthesizers. The first is a flowing,low toned string tone. The other is a classic Minneapolis horn line tickling the rhythm while the last one is a rather jazzy synth bass line. Vanity’s lead vocals of the song are soon joined by the Time’s Morris Day,who sings the chorus of the song. Following each refrain,the lead synth plays scaling arpeggios while the next to last chorus features a synthesized rock guitar solo. Than Morris’s extends on his chorus along with this as the song fades out.
Multi instrumentalist Bill Wolfer gave this song an interesting take on the Minneapolis sound. As I often find the case looking back on different music, he combined rhythmically brittle electro funk with Gothic European classical melodic content. Vanity’s vocals are very operatic in this song-in the manner of a yearning cabaret diva. Morris Day’s vocals add the soulfully funky vocal flavor to this compelling combination of structured orchestration and controlled,funky rhythm. Wolfer had previously worked with Stevie Wonder,Teena Marie,Michael Jackson,Diana Ross and Shalamar. And the combination of approaches he utilized here made this a compelling number for Vanity.